Cara Nelson, The Gales of September, September 12, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling in Prince William Sound

Date: September 12, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 0830
Latitude: 60º16.073’ N
Longitude: 147º59.608’W
Wind: East, 10 knots – building to 30
Air Temperature: 13ºC (55ºF)
Air Pressure: 1003 millibars
Cloudy, light drizzle

Science and Technology Log

There is a tool for every job and the same holds true for sampling plankton and water in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA).  As we sorted, shuffled and assembled equipment yesterday, what struck me the most was the variety of nets and other equipment needed for the different science research being performed as part of the LTER program. 

There are a variety of research disciplines comprising the LTER scientific team aboard the R/V Tiglax, each with their own equipment and need for laboratory space. These disciplines include physical oceanography, biological (phytoplankton and zooplankton), and chemical oceanography along with marine birds and mammal.  Their equipment has been transported from University of Alaska Fairbanks, as well as Western Washington University to the remote town of Seward AK and subsequently transferred to the ship before it could be either set up or stored away in the hold for later use.  Logistics is an important part of any research mission.

Immediately, it was obvious that some of the primary equipment on the ship, used for almost all the water sampling and plankton tows, require frequent maintenance in order to maintain function.  The winch for instance needed rewiring at port before we could depart. Winch runs the smart wire cable that allows the scientists to talk real time to the equipment (e.g., CTD and MultiNet).

The deck full of boxes being unpacked and stored away, as well as the winch pulled apart for rewiring

One of the most complex pieces of equipment and the workhorse of all oceanographic cruises, the CTD, takes a good deal of time to set up as well properly interface with the computers in the lab for real-time data communication.  A CTD, which stands for conductivity, temperature and depth, is a piece of equipment that accurately measures the salinity and water temperature at different depths.  The CTD is actually only a small portion of the device shown below.

CTD prep
The CTD is being put together and wired before departure.
CTD output
Temperature (blue line) salinity (red line) and fluorescence (chlorophyll) are transmitted and graphed on the computer as the CTD is lowered and raised.

The main gray bottles visible in a ring around the top are called Niskin bottles. These bottles are used to collect water samples and can be fired from the lab computer to close and seal water in at the desired depth.  These water samples are used by the team to examine both chlorophyll (abundance of phytoplankton) as well as nutrients.  As a side note, if these bottles are not reopened when the CTD is sent back down the pressure can cause the bottles to implode.  Two bottles were lost this way at our second station this morning, luckily spares were available onboard!

One bottle shattered from the pressure (on the right) and in the process, broke the neighboring bottle.

On the bottom of the CTD, there are several important sensors.  One is for nitrates and another for dissolved oxygen.  Additionally, there is a laser that detects particle size in the water, aiding in identifying plankton.  Much of this data is being fed to the computers but will not be analyzed until the scientists return the lab at the end of the cruise. 

A big decision had to be made before departing Seward late in the evening on the 11th.  A gale warning is in effect for the NGA with 30+ knot winds and high seas.  After several meetings between the chief scientists and the captain, it was determined to forego the typical sampling along GAK1 and the Seward line and head immediately to Prince William Sound (PWS) to escape the brunt of the storm. 

After getting underway late in the evening on Wednesday, the 11th, we stopped at a station called Res 2.5 in Resurrection Bay.  This station is used to test the CTD before heading out.  Just as with any complicated equipment it takes time to work out the glitches.  For example, it is imperative to have the CTD lower and raise at a particular rate of speed for consistent results and speed and depth sensor were not initially reading correctly.  Additionally, the winch continued to give a little trouble until all the kinks were worked out close to midnight. With a night focused on transiting to PWS, sampling was put on hold until this morning.

Personal Log

There are three F’s to remember when working aboard a NOAA research vessel: Flexibility, Fortitude and Following orders.  Flexibility was the word for everyone to focus on the first day.  I was immediately impressed with how everyone was able to adjust schedules based on equipment issues, coordination with other researchers on equipment loading and storage and most of all the weather.

Yesterday, there was help needed everywhere, so I was able to lend a hand with the moving and sorting and eventually assembly of some of our equipment.  The weather was beautiful in Seward as we worked in the sunshine on the deck, knowing that a gale was brewing and would follow us on our exit from Resurrection Bay.  Helping put together the variety of nets we are going to be able to use during our night shift, gave me time to ask our team a lot of questions.  I am amazed at how open and willing the entire team is to teach me every step of the way.  I am feverishly taking notes and pictures to take it all in.

Orientation and safety are also a big part of the first day on a new ship.  Dan, the first mate, gave us a rundown of the rules and regulations for R/V Tiglax along with a tour of the ship.  We ended on the deck with a practice drill and getting into our survival suits in case of a ship evacuation. 

survival suit practice
The new crew practices with their survival suits: Emily, Jake, Kira and Cara
Cara in survival suit
Although it has been a few years, I was able to don my survival suit pretty quickly.

Adjusting to a night time schedule will be one of my greatest challenges.  Usually we work the first night but we had a break due to the weather so we were able to put off our first nighttime sampling until Thursday night.  Everyone on the night crew has a different technique to adjust their body clock.  My plan was to stay up as late as possible and then rise early.  Last night however, between the ship noise and the rocking back & forth in the high seas during our transit from Seward to Knight Island passage, I did not sleep well.  Hopefully this will inspire a nap so I can wake refreshed for our first night shift. 

When I awoke this morning at 06:00, we had entered the sheltered waters of Knight Island passage. with calm seas and a light drizzle, ready to start a full day of collection.  I was able to watch the first plankton tows with the CalVet for the daytime zooplankton team with Kira Monell and Russ Hopcroft. Additionally, I made my rounds up to the fly bridge where Dan Cushing monitors for seabirds and mammals while we are underway.  I will share details of these experiences in the coming days.

For now, it is time for lunch and my power nap.

Did You Know:

There are a wide variety of plankton sampling nets each with a unique design to capture the desired type and size of plankton.  To name a few we will be using: Bongo nets, Mutlinets (for vertical and horizontal towing), Methot trawl nets, and CalVet nets.  As I get to assist with each one of these nets, I will highlight them in my blog to give you a better idea what they look like and how they work.

Jessica Cobley: Resurrection Bay, July 28, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Jessica Cobley

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

July 19 – August 8, 2019

Mission: Midwater Trawl Acoustic Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska (Kodiak to Yakutat Bay)

Date: 7/30/2019

Weather Data from the Gulf of Alaska:  Lat: 58º  50.39’ N  Long: 150º 14.72’ W 

Air Temp:  14.2º C

Personal Log

Today we had the chance to sail up into Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula and it was beautiful! In general, transects, or lines the boat collects acoustic information along, run perpendicular to the Gulf of Alaska shelf because that is where pollock are most likely found. Luckily for us, a few of them travel up into bays along the coast and give us a welcomed change of scenery from the open ocean. 

transect map
A map of the transects we followed up into Resurrection Bay.

Why do we survey in bays when pollock are usually open water fish? Well, during the winter, pollock sometimes aggregate to spawn (reproduce) in bays and those areas are documented by the scientists. In the summer, scientists want to see if there are still any pollock present in those areas. Unfortunately, we do not have time to survey all of the bays and so just a few are selected. For this leg, after the next couple of days back on the shelf, we will head up into Prince William Sound, which I am really looking forward to seeing. 

The town of Seward – can you spot the cruise ship?

While following the transects up into Resurrection Bay, it was fun to see sailboats, fishing boats, helicopters and float planes rushing around us. To my surprise, I also saw masses of RV campers through the binoculars when looking at town. I learned that Seward is a popular place for people to visit from Anchorage and other areas for summer vacations and fishing opportunities. As for those of us on the boat, we also enjoyed the summer weather while sailing through. The sun was shining and it seemed that everyone took a moment to step outside, make a few phone calls home (we had service for a bit!) and soak up the warm weather. All in all, I think everyone feels re-energized going into our final 10 days at sea.

top deck
Enjoying the sunshine from the top deck of the boat

Science and Technology Log 

We stopped to fish near the mouth of Resurrection Bay and found mostly age 1 and 2 pollock, along with a few adults. This shows us that pollock do utilize both the bay and the shelf areas during their lifecycle. Afterwards, we headed back out into the gulf and fished with a net called a Methot net.

The Methot net gets lifted up by the A-frame (yellow metal beams). I did not know the A-frame moved before this!

A Methot net is a different kind of net that is specialized to catch Euphausiids (krill). In addition to collecting data on pollock, scientists also collect data on Euphausiids (krill). The net used to collect krill is a bit different than the one used for pollock. There are no pocket nets along the side and instead of the end of the net being mesh, there is a small canister that the net filters krill into. Once we haul in the net, it is time to sort and collect data on the catch, just like the pollock trawls. 

Processing fish in the wet lab.
Processing fish in the wet lab. This one had a lot of jellies! Photo by Darin Jones

It has been back to regular fishing trawls since then, along with comparison trawls. A comparison trawl is when we fish twice over the same area using two different nets. This year, the scientists decided to replace the old survey net with a newly designed one that is a little bit smaller and easier for the deck crew to deploy. Now they need to compare the two nets to make sure the newer net is catching the same species and size of fish. Darin was explaining to me that they have to do approximately 25 comparison trawls on this survey and will continue comparisons during the winter survey as well. If all goes according to plan, they will permanently replace the old net next summer. 

On one of our trawls the other day, we caught a lot of rockfish. Lucky for us, rockfish is a species we can keep and eat on the boat. We are not allowed to keep salmon, crab, halibut or herring since they are prohibited species. You are only allowed to keep those species if you have a special permit. While I wish we could eat the others, rockfish is also really tasty!

Darin filleting
Lead scientist, Darin Jones, filleting dusky rockfish for dinner.

Did You Know?

There is an incinerator on NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson that burns all of our trash from the boat so that we don’t have to keep it aboard for the whole trip. Also, nothing is thrown overboard, not even food scraps. When I was taking a look yesterday, the temperature was over 800 degrees Celsius. Diesel fuel is used as fuel initially, followed by burning sludge from the boat once it gets hot enough. All leftover ash gets put into bins and discarded when back in port.

Thanks for following along!

Cheers, Jess

P.S. We go up and watch the sunrise everyday…it is beautiful out here!

Abigail watches sunrise
Abigail McCarthy watches the sunrise every morning and ranks them. This one earned a “glorious!”

Lona Hall: Meeting, Greeting, and Settling In, June 3, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Lona Hall

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

June 3 – 14, 2019


Mission: Kodiak Island Hydrographic Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Kodiak Island, Alaska

Date: June 3, 2019

Local Time: 1100 hours

Location: Alongside, JAG Shipyard, Seward, AK

Weather from the Bridge:

Latitude: 60°05.1022’ N
Longitude: 149°21.2954’ W
Wind Speed: 5 knots
Wind Direction: E/SE (114 degrees)
Air Temperature: 12.12° Celsius

Lona Hall on NOAA Ship Rainier
Enjoying the fresh air

Science and Technology Log

While at port in Seward, it has already been my pleasure to meet some of the people that make up the team of NOAA Ship Rainier.  My mission so far has been to learn about the different capacities in which individuals serve on board the ship and how each person’s distinct responsibilities combine together to create a single, well-oiled machine.  

The five main departments represented are the NOAA Commissioned Officers Corps, the Hydrographic Survey Technician team, the Engineering team, the Deck department, and the Stewards.  There are also a few visitors (like me) who are here to observe, ask questions, and participate in daily operations, as possible.

Career Focus – Hydrographic Survey Technician

Today I spent some time with Survey Technician, Amanda Finn.  Amanda is one of nine Survey Techs aboard NOAA Ship Rainier.

Amanda Finn, Hydrographic Survey Technician
Amanda Finn, Hydrographic Survey Technician

What is hydrography?

According to the NOAA website, hydrography is the “science that measures and describes the physical features of the navigable portion of the Earth’s surface and adjoining coastal areas.” Essentially, hydrographers create and improve maps of the ocean floor, both deep at sea and along the shoreline.  The maps, or charts, allow for safer navigation and travel at sea and are therefore very important.

(Click here to see the chart for Resurrection Bay, where the ship is currently docked.)


What does a Hydrographic Survey Technician do?

Technicians like Amanda are in charge of preparing systems for collecting hydrographic data, actually collecting and processing the data, monitoring it for quality, and then writing reports about their findings.  They work part of the time on the ship as well as on the smaller launch boats.


What kind of data do Survey Techs use?

Both the main ship and the small launches are equipped with multibeam sonar systems.  SONAR is an acronym for Sound Navigation and Ranging. This fascinating technology uses sound waves to “see” whatever exists below the water.  Instead of sending out one sound wave at a time, the multibeam sonar sends out a fan-shaped collection, or swath, of sound waves below and to the sides of the boat’s hull. When the sound waves hit something solid, like a rock, a sunken ship, or simply the sea floor, they bounce back.  The speed and strength at which the sound waves return tell the technicians the depth and hardness of what lies beneath the ocean surface at a given location.

small vessel in the water
Small launch for near shore survey

Personal Log

It is possible to be overwhelmed in a good way.  That has been my experience so far traveling from my home in Georgia to Alaska.  The ship is currently docked at the Seward shipyard in Resurrection Bay. When you hear the word “shipyard”, you might not expect much in the way of scenery, but in this case you would be absolutely wrong!  All around us we can see the bright white peaks of the Kenai Mountains. Yesterday I stood in one place for a while watching a sea otter to my left and a bald eagle to my right. Local fishermen were not as enchanted as I was, but rather were focused on the task at hand: pulling in their bounties of enormous fish!

View near Seward shipyard
Out for a walk near the shipyard

I am similarly impressed with the order and organization aboard the ship. With over fifty people who need to sleep, eat, and get things done each and every day, it might seem like an impossible task to organize it all.  By regular coordination between the departments, as well as the oversight and planning of the ship’s Commanding Officer and Executive Officer, everything flows smoothly.

I think that it is worth noting here how the level of organization that it takes to run a ship like NOAA Ship Rainier should not be taken for granted.  Every individual must do their part in order to ensure the productivity, efficiency, and safety of everyone else.  As a teacher, we often discuss how teamwork is one of life’s most important skills. What a terrific real-world example this has turned out to be!

NOAA Ship Rainier
NOAA Ship Rainier

Did you know?

Seward is located on the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska.  The name Kenai (key-nye) comes from the English word (Kenaitze) for the Kahtnuht’ana Dena’ina tribe.  The name of this tribe translates to “people along the Kahtnu river.” Click here for more information about the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.

Word of the Day

fathom: a unit of length equal to 6 feet, commonly used to measure the depth of water

Kim Wolke, August 10, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kim Wolke
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
July 23 – August 11, 2006

Mission: Hydrographic Survey of the Shumagin Islands
Geographical Area: Alaska
Date: August 10, 2006

Seal Rocks are a group of islets.  The largest stands at 287 feet and has an arch through it.
Seal Rocks are a group of islets. The largest stands at 287 feet and has an arch through it.

Final Log 

We’re about three hours from arriving in Seward. I’m looking forward to being on land again. Although I’ve enjoyed my time on the RAINIER, I can say that ship life is not a way of life for me. ☺  As we make our approach to Resurrection Bay, there’s some beautiful scenery and lots of little islets are popping up. It’s as if we’re being greeted by them.  It also serves as a sign for me that land is near.

I’ve been quite impressed at how well things run aboard the ship.  Everyone is very hard working—the deckhands, the engineers, the electrician, the cooks, the hydrographic technicians, and the officers. People are where they need to be when they need to be there. Many of the people have crazy schedules, even when we’re anchored. There are always people awake and working in some capacity 24/7 on the ship. Engineers need to be on watch in the engine room food preparation for the day and don’t finish until about 7pm!  Even when we dock in Seward in a few days, people will still be working to maintain and secure the ship.

Deckhands aboard NOAA ship RAINIER prepare the lines for our arrival in Seward, AK
Deckhands aboard NOAA ship RAINIER prepare the lines for our arrival in Seward, AK

I’d like to thank NOAA for providing me the opportunity to be a Teacher at Sea.  It has been a wonderful experience that I will be taking back to my classroom and my colleagues. I am especially thankful to the officers and crew of the RAINIER for being so open, friendly, welcoming, accommodating, and helpful. They all made the time on board a pleasure. I learned a tremendous amount from them.  They were all very giving of their time, even when they were busy and tired.

I’ve met great people these past few weeks.  I’ve had many laughs and excellent conversations along the way. Everyone I’ve had the opportunity to talk with and get to know has such interesting stories to tell about themselves, their travels, and life in general. Some of them are very good storytellers and instigators (no names mentioned Dennis Brooks). There is such a variety of walks of life on the ship.  I feel lucky to have gotten to be a part of their world for this short time.  When we get to Seward, some of the crew will be leaving the RAINIER for new jobs and life endeavors.  I wish them the best.  To all aboard the RAINIER, I wish safe travels.

James Miller, August 25, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
James Miller
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
August 13 – 27, 2005

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area: North Pacific, Alaska
Date: August 25, 2005

Science and Technology Log 

Woke up last night at 2:00am during transit to Seward to catch some of the Northern Lights show.  For a short while they jumped around the sky in the distance but never came directly above like they often do.  If it is clear enough, I’ll try again tonight in Seward.

After racing out to the public phone to make my first call home in two weeks, I spent the day touring Seward. It’s a beautiful fishing town with great views of the glaciers and lots of tourists.  It is much like Homer but better in that the town is in walking distance of the ship.

I went to the Sea Life Center, which has great exhibits of Alaska’s wildlife.  They have huge tanks with birds, sea lions, and harbor seals.  They also had a live video feed of the sea lion rookery about 35 miles outside of Seward.  There were three or four cameras set high up on the rocks overlooking the seals and the adjoining harbor.  While I was there, a pod of transient killer whales entered the harbor at the sea lion rookery.  They would zoom-in on the whales, and you could see them clearly through the video feed hunting and waiting for an unfortunate pup to fall off one of the rocks.  It was an amazing sight and apparently uncommon because many of the center’s employees came to watch. In the half hour I watched, the whales just swam by closely with their heads out of the water, but they didn’t get any meals.

Met with surveyor, Dave Sinson, to get some training on a 3-D surveying software program that he’ll be burning onto a disk for me to show my students.  The software is actually downloadable for free off the internet and comes with sample data.  It will be tremendously useful in demonstrating, visually, the crucial mission of the RAINIER.

Going to hike up Mt. Marathon tomorrow, which leads up to a glacial dome.  On Saturday I’m going with some crewmembers to hike the famous Exit Glacier.  Should be fun! From there it is home to N.Y.

Personal Log 

Being this is my last log, I just want to direct my final personal comments to any potential Teacher-at-Sea candidates.  I have learned much over the last two weeks from this experience.  There are so many real world lessons to be learned working on a NOAA ship such as the RAINIER.  At first I was a bit reluctant about the parallels that could be drawn between the work onboard and my math classes, but it didn’t take long before I saw the endless number of connections that can be integrated into K-12 classrooms.

The crew of the RAINIER is very professional, patient, and friendly.  As I mentioned in an earlier log, I was amazed at the depth and breadth of their knowledge.  I am the fifth TAS member aboard the RAINIER this year.  You would think the crew would get tired of having to train another TAS member only to have them leave in a couple of weeks. At sea they are teachers, and I was grateful by how they would go above and beyond in terms of training me.

With regard to life aboard the ship, you adapt to it quickly.  There’s really something to the whole “getting your sea legs” thing.  Your body does seem to adjust to the constantly moving world of a ship.  Even the other visitor aboard, who had a difficult time with motion sickness early on, did fine after a few days.

I’m thankful for having been afforded this tremendous opportunity.  I’ve grown personally and professionally, and I’m sure my students, in turn, will benefit from it.

TAS Miller out.

Leyf Peirce, July 6, 2004

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leyf Peirce
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier

July 6 – 15, 2004

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area:
Eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska
July 6, 2004

Time: 20:00
Latitude: N 59°03.205
Longitude: W 150°41.139
Visibility: 10 + mi
Wind direction: 280
Wind speed: 11 knots
Sea wave height: 0 – 1 foot
Swell wave height: 3 – 4 feet
Sea water temperature: 12.2 °C
Sea level pressure: 1016.0 mb
Cloud cover: 4/8

Science and Technology Log

We left Seward today and are headed toward the Shumagin Islands to conduct hydrographic surveys to map the ocean floor and the coastline. The overall goal of this research is to update existing nautical charts. Most of the charts that are currently used have not been updated since the early 1930’s. After talking with ENS Brent Pounds, ENS Nicole Manning and P.S. Shyla Allen, I learned more about the tools and techniques used to map the ocean floor. Steve Foyd also provided me with an excellent pamphlet titled “Nautical Chart Programming”. From these sources, I learned the following information about data acquisition and analysis. The RAINIER will first be positioned using the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) near the desired area to be mapped. Then, the RAINIER launches up to 6 research vessels, each equipped with two main measuring devices. One device, the ELAC C-Beam 1180, is basically a side scanner that can scan a swath of the bottom of the ocean up to 200 meters using 180 individual sound beams. Any depth change will appear to be different shades on the sonogram. The heights of different points can then be calculated from this sonogram. In conjunction to the ELAC C-Beam 1180, the launch boats use an echo sounder mounted to the ship’s hull. While this can retrieve more accurate data, data with only a 0.1 m margin of error, it can also only scan an area up to 5 meters. However, using these two systems combined produces the most accurate data. The RAINIER also installs tide gauges that produce accurate data that can be added to the resulting nautical charts. Researchers aboard the RAINIER take this data, “clean it”, and eventually send it to the mainland to be used to create the new updated charts.

Personal Log

This day has been full of excitement as we are finally underway! The scenery is absolutely beautiful here, and the wild life is truly fascinating. The snow covered mountains dip into the water with an awesome power as sea otters and puffins play in that same water below. We have also seen several porpoises and one crewmember claimed he saw a whale. I am overcome with awe at how this ecosystem is filled with so much wonder and unknown as the mountain goats and moose mirror the whales and sea lions only to be separated by where the land and water meet. Life aboard ship is similarly full of excitement. It is like a finely tuned machine how well everyone works together to make this boat maneuver. As much as I am enjoying the sight seeing, I can’t wait for the research to begin. I am excited to have my engineering background meet my teacher profession!

Question for the Day:

It is summer here, and the tilt of the Earth causes the “sun to never go down”. One could even read a book in the middle of the night with no flashlight! As I was thinking about navigational techniques and the history of navigation, I couldn’t help but reflect on the importance of using the stars for guidance at night. The question for the day is: What did sailors use, before all of the GPS technology we have now, to navigate at night in these upper latitudes when it never got dark enough to see the stars at night?

Sena Norton, July 4, 2004

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sena Norton
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier

July 6 – 15, 2004

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area:
Eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska
July 4, 2004

Inport Seward, AK, Cruise Ship dock
Weather: Partly Cloudy, occasional fog, calm wind

Personal Log

I was met at the train depot by two of the Junior Officers from the RAINIER and brought on-board. After a quick tour of the common areas I was shown to my berth and allowed to get settled in. I will be sharing the room with one of the survey techs on board in a 4 person room. I met two more of my berth area mates while I was unpacking and settling in.